The Implications of El Salvador’s Presidential Elections

Editor’s note: Diana Villiers Negroponte, nonresident senior fellow with the Latin America Initiative at Brookings, is author of  Seeking Peace in El Salvador: The Struggle to Reconstruct the Nation at the End of the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

On February 2, Salvadorans will go to the polls to elect their next president for a five-year term. In addition to the 4 million eligible to vote in El Salvador, 10,337 Salvadorans living in the United States have registered to vote. What is at stake for them and for the U.S.?

For decades, relations between El Salvador and the United States have been very close. One out of every four Salvadorans lives in the U.S., sending over $4 billion home each year. This amounts to approximately 17 percent of the country’s GDP. Furthermore, El Salvador adopted the U.S. dollar with the intent to stabilize the economy, expand exports and encourage investment.

El Salvador was the only nation in Latin America to send troops to Iraq, in recognition for which Washington granted Temporary Protective Status to 220,000 Salvadorans annually who would otherwise be deported. Perhaps the most critical bilateral issue is the decision to grant a second Millennium Challenge Grant of $277 million to El Salvador. Although the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has approved the grant, congressional action is still required. U.S. congressional leaders have expressed the desire to see an investment climate conducive to foreign investment, further measures against corruption and commitment to the rule of law. The three largest political parties competing in the forthcoming election approach these issues from somewhat different perspectives.

In the first round of presidential elections, the candidate for the left-leaning Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) is the current Vice President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén. He was one of the five comandantes during El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992), earning a reputation for consensus building with other FMLN leaders and well-organized community programs for Salvadoran refugees who returned to their country in 1984 as part of a two-pronged counterinsurgency program. His main opponent is the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) candidate, Norman Quijano, the mayor of San Salvador. He has earned a reputation of building safe communities which both prevent youth from joining the gangs and re-integrating those willing to leave the life of crime. Both these parties gain support from approximately 30 percent of those surveyed in the last few weeks. A former president, Antonio Saca (2004-2009) has created a third party, UNIDAD. This is a coalition (of center-left and center-right parties) which leans right, but has often voted with the FMLN in the National Assembly against ARENA. If neither major party wins 50 percent plus one majority on February 2, Saca may have the opportunity to become the king-maker in the run-off election scheduled for March 9. Saca himself is alleged to have enriched himself demonstrably during his presidency and is unlikely to play a government role, but his political skills give him the opportunity to influence electoral outcomes.

The electoral campaign has revived ancient class hostilities that led El Salvador through a 12-year civil war resulting in over 75,000 deaths and half a million people displaced, many of whom sought refugee status in the United States. ARENA represents the business community and commitment to a free-market economy. FMLN favors a planned economy, although the last five years have demonstrated efforts to gain the trust of the business community and set up public-private partnerships in energy and infrastructure projects. UNIDAD is tainted by the alleged corruption of its leader, but otherwise favors a liberal market economy.

All three parties favor strengthening the rule of law, and none are prepared to endorse the March 2012 truce between the jailed gang leaders despite the fact that it has halved the number of gang related murders. In the face of continued violence and widespread extortion, voters give priority to strengthening security over the second most important issue, namely jobs and the economy. Regretfully, the candidates have not debated the substantive issues so much as corruption within each of the parties and rumors of FMLN alliance with the Venezuelan led, ALBA group.

In the midst of intense partisanship, the winner of these elections will face daunting tasks:  The Constitutional Court will hear a case to determine whether the amnesty law – an integral part of the 1992 peace agreement – is compatible with commitments made to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. That amnesty protected abusers of human rights on both sides, although the U.N. reported in 1995 that government forces were responsible for over 80 percent of the crimes. Unraveling that issue could strain reconciliation efforts that both ARENA and FMLN government have sought to respect. Second, containing gang violence requires significant investment in education, job training and new sources of legitimate work. In order to attract this investment, the next president must gain the confidence of the international business community. Finally, outbursts of violence such as the ransacking of the human right’s office, Asociación Pro-Búsqueda, in November 2013 remind Salvadorans of para-military actions carried out during the civil war. (This office has helped find the natural parents for hundreds of infants snatched by the military from their families during that war.) Peace agreements undo unless leaders from all sectors of national life remain committed to uphold the institutions which support that peace.

The U.S. role is to remain firmly neutral. U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel has emphasized the importance of “inexorable neutrality in these elections.” However, others in Congress and in private life have taken preferred positions, using the media to criticize the FMLN and potential links to foreign alliances. This does not help Salvadorans make up their own minds on the future of their country. Except for the youngest voters, Salvadorans have experienced their own cruel history and now seek a more peaceful and prosperous future. Although keen observers, we should remain neutral on the outcome.